When you’re facing life’s myriad challenges, having someone tell you to “Stay positive!” often feels like a platitude (at best) or incredibly irritating (at worst).
Sure, it’s great advice, but maintaining a positive attitude can be easier said than done when it seems like everything that day, week, month or year is going wrong.
However, research has shown: The path to being happy and successful frequently starts with – you guessed it – having a positive attitude. Try these coping tactics that these been-there-done-that expats share:
When American expat Cora Bales moved from Singapore to Luxembourg in 2014, she was coming off of a battle with breast cancer.
“I adopted a positive mental outlook during my treatment, which I have continued to fiercely employ in Europe while dealing with postcancer life,” she shares.
What was Cora’s trick? Facing her fears head-on – as, many times, acknowledging a fear or unhappiness is enough to dispel the negativity.
In short, says Cora, “It is okay to be afraid, and it is okay to cry.”
Cora adds that she also turned to comedy and tried to laugh as much as possible to relieve stress and tension while battling cancer. Just the action of smiling, scientists say, promotes positive endorphins in the brain. What’s more, laughter’s therapeutic value is lauded by the US National Institute of Health as being able to improve quality of life for people suffering from illnesses.
So far, Cora’s methods have been successful: She’ll be five years cancer-free in October 2017.
Going from one international assignment to another can be fraught with peril or just anxiety. It definitely was for British expat Susan McDonnell, who accompanied her husband on various jobs in Singapore, Malaysia, Russia, Africa and the United States – the couple moved 27 times in 37 years!
“There were many setbacks and challenges, especially in the early days,” she recalls. “There could be danger, violence, a lack of food to buy, no heat or electricity or no amenities.”
Because of communication problems and isolation, community became important to Susan, who says the support of friends kept her going.
In Singapore, for instance, Susan cites social activities such as singing in the American Women’s Association’s International Choir, playing bridge and charity work that kept her thinking optimistically through the occasional upheaval.
For newcomers, she advises: “Throw yourself into everything when you arrive – open yourself to new experiences and people – and you will find your niche. Enjoy it all!”
But, what do you do when things back home aren’t quite so enjoyable? Canadian expat Carolyn Pollack found out about her mother’s battle with cancer while she was living in Melbourne, then managed it to the end while living in Singapore.
She leaned on her mother’s positive attitude, yet took comfort amongst her friends from her Melbourne gym and a walking group in Singapore, too.
“Talking with friends who have experienced similar situations is always helpful,” she says.
Even better advice: Surround yourself with positive people, experts say. “Optimism, like pessimism, can be infectious,” noted the New York Times story about resilience.
British expat Sharon Connolly agrees. When her 17-year marriage broke down, she had no job, no money and no home. She persevered by diving into her consulting business, but ultimately, she credits her friends as her lifeline.
“My social life became colourful and busy. I worked hard, played hard, travelled and had fun,” she says, suggesting to others in a similar situation: “Network and connect with people, and you’ll be surprised to find where opportunities arise.”
Inspiring words – quotes from people, song lyrics and lines from poems or books – can help promote a positive mindset. Indian expat and Netflix executive Dipashree Das can attest! Despite facing numerous work and personal challenges in Singapore, she’s managed to come out on top.
What’s her secret? The poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which ends with the line: “I am the captain of my soul.” As Dipashree shared in the recently released book Dear Ms Expat, “‘Invictus’ taught me to never give up, no matter how many times I fall; that I have within me an immeasurable strength I can harness, when I want to.”
Californian Joe Faggiato was made redundant from his sales operation job in Singapore after 14 years of service. “The initial feeling was tough, as this experience was a first for me. I was angry and dismayed and asked, “Why is this happening to me?” He recalls.
However, Joe focused on the good things he still had, such as his group of supportive friends.
Counting your “gifts” is, indeed, a smart strategy, says Siobhan Coulter, trainer at meditation centre The Golden Space. She suggests this technique to change your thinking: “Look for three gifts or opportunities in every situation,” she says. “The brain likes to look for patterns, so this technique helps it focus on positive patterns instead.”
Likewise, most mindfulness experts say that keeping a so-called “gratitude journal” is a healthy way to take stock of the positives in your life. If you’re not into pen and paper, check out free apps like the Gratitude 365 Journal
In addition, not taking bad things personally is key, according to Dr. Adam Grant, management and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Telling yourself that a situation is not personal, pervasive or permanent can be extremely useful,” he told the Times.
For Joe, once his job search was over, he made sure to look outside of himself to appreciate his past struggle. “I pay it forward to anybody I can help, as I know this was done for me by my network.”
When Melissa Johnston was struggling with divorce while living on the Red Dot, the Australian expat decided to use her experience in dealing with setbacks by becoming a mamber of ANZA and setting up the ANZA Single Parents Networking Forum.
“Joining ANZA made a huge difference to me,” she shares. “I started the ANZA Single Parents group with another single mum, and over the four years that we have been going, we have helped other single parents and their kids.”
She also stresses the importance of letting children know that they are not the only ones dealing with divorce, separation or the loss of a parent.
Maria Luedeke, director, counsellor and psychotherapist at Aspire Counselling, concurs, noting that such challenges can be exacerbated by the “expat lifestyle, as it can isolate you from your support system. Being separated from your extended family can intensify worries about siblings, ageing parents and even friends, and leave you feeling left out of the life you left behind.”
Often, Maria says, expats are “notoriously bad” at seeking professional support for mental health issues. “It is common to ask others for names of dentists, hairdressers, tutors and travel agents when people move to a new place, but there is still some taboo about talking about mental health and good mental health professionals.”
Given the prevalence of qualified mental health professionals in Singapore, she encourages expats to not be afraid to talk about mental health. “Reaching out for help can make all the difference,” she says.
Stress is never going to disappear completely, so it’s better to build yourself up by taking small breaks to give yourself some time away from your stressors.
For example, while single mother Melissa was managing her divorce, she practised positive affirmations and meditation and also did reiki (a Japanese healing technique) and took outdoor walks.
Plus, count your blessings: In Singapore’s Garden City, there are plenty of places to “stop and smell the flowers,” as they say.
Last, don’t necessarily deem stress caused by dealing with life’s challenges to be a “bad” thing. In the Times article, Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, purported that there are benefits to stress, including providing a time for growth and change, which can, in turn, increase resilience. In the doctor’s words: “Stress is the stimulus for growth, and recovery is when the growth occurs.”
For many expats, moving to a new country is stressful, and it can be particularly unsettling for kids.
Reckon they could do with some help settling into sunny Singapore life? VA Psychology Center specialises in dealing with problems that tykes and teens may face. Its STARS Children’s Clinic offers therapies such as drama and art for children with adjustment problems, anger management and more. Sessions are available in English and German; family counselling sessions that address anxiety are also available.
At FamilySOS. founder Katy Harris practises eight types of therapy, suited to help children from preschool age with issues such as bullying, sibling rivalry, divorce, death, social exclusion and more.
Or, let furry friends help. PAWSibility‘s counselling sessions and social emotional development programmes are accompanied by a professional therapy dog to help engage children from age 4 and adults up to the age of 30.
By Andrea McKenna Brankin, The Finder (Issue 286), September 2017 / Updated August 2019
More on The Finder: